Monday, October 26, 2009

The Mondo Lounge Jazz of Piero Umiliani

The following is an excerpt from Film and Television Scores, 1950-1979 (McFarland Publishing, 2008) by Kristopher Spencer.

Whenever Piero Umiliani teamed up with documentary and feature filmmaker Luigi Scattini — and they did on several occasions — the results were outstanding. Following his early mondo movies Sexy Magico (’63) and the Jayne Mansfield docu-comedy L’Amore Primitivo (Primitive Love, ’64), Scattini worked with Umiliani on a shockumentary Svezia, Inferno e Paradiso (Sweden, Heaven and Hell, ’68). The film documents the Scandinavian country’s lesbian nightclubs, biker scene, incidents of drug abuse and alcoholism, wife swapping and porn shops. Umiliani’s score elevates the subject matter from sordid to sublime on tracks like “Topless Party” and “Fotomodelle.” Soulful organ tones accompany fuzzy electric guitars, rumbling bass lines and an insistent rock beat. On other tracks, Gato Barbieri, who scored Last Tango in Paris (’72), joins the jazzy vibe. Sweden also features a tender vocal performance by Lydia McDonald on “You Tried to Warn Me,” and wonderful wordless vocals by the legendary Edda Dell’Orso as well as Sandro and Giulia Alessandroni on several tracks, most notably on the hit “Mah Na’ Mah Na’”. Pop vocal groups of the period frequently covered the latter song, which features a nonsense lyric and maddeningly catchy melody, and it even became popular in the U.S. thanks to its unexpected use on the children’s show, Sesame Street. The soundtrack’s reissue in the mid ’90s helped fuel the retro soundtrack renaissance.

Umiliani also scored Scanatti’s Angeli Bianchi Angeli Neri (White Angel Black Angel or The Satanists or Witchcraft, ’70), a shockumentary about the occult fad that bubbled up during the counterculture revolution in the late ’60s. Although the film did not focus on sex per se, it wasn’t shy about showing beautiful nude young women participating in orgiastic satanic rites. Musically speaking, this is one of Umiliani’s most spellbinding efforts, mixing lushly orchestrated “Italian recordings” with spare, percussion-filled “Brazilian recordings.” From the very first track, “Sweet Revelation,” the score transfixes with melodies that suggest a romantic film rather than a documentary. Umiliani’s swinging arrangement provides perfect accompaniment for Shirley Hammer’s unbridled vocal performance. “La Foresta Incantata” maintains the magic, building from a shimmering intro to combine a Nora Orlandi-led female chorus with lush orchestral swells, backed by throbbing bass and uncluttered drum patterns. If there is one track anywhere that captures the romanticized hippie notion of pagan witchcraft this is it in spades. Although the score couldn’t possibly get better than its first two tracks, it delivers even more unexpected pleasures in the catchy pop numbers “Now I’m On My Own” and “The City Life” (performed by Mark David and Forever Ember, a short-lived British psychedelic group). The aura of pagan witches run amok intensifies on the ritualistic abstraction of “Streghe a Convegno” (featuring Alessandro Alessandroni’s modern chorus) and becomes downright whimsical on “Magical Children” (featuring a multi-tracked psychedelic vocal by Hammer). Umiliani’s clear affinity for acoustic folk (particularly brightly strummed 12-string guitars, chiming harpsichord and harmonica) becomes apparent on the aptly titled “Folk Time.” Even as the score increasingly turns to sparely orchestrated Brazilian percussion numbers, Umiliani still surprises with imaginatively loose interpretations of Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor” and Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata.” As diverse in style as it is rich in melodic invention, Angeli Bianchi… Angeli Neri nearly outshines the excellent Svezia, Inferno e Paradiso.

For Scattini’s Questo Sporco Mondo Meraviglioso (This Dirty Wonderful World, ’71), which was co-directed by Mino Loy, Umiliani continued to capitalize on his stylistically limber scoring style. While there aren’t any tracks as emotive as “Sweet Revelation” or as catchy as “Mah Na’ Mah Na’,” Umiliani continues to work wonders with both melody and arrangements. On the title track, Umiliani employs a soaring, sentimental melody to exploit his gift for lush pop romanticism. Elsewhere, Umiliani explores the country folk sensibility on several tracks by highlighting lively acoustic guitar (“Western Melody” and “Old Rock”), harmonica (“Young Time”) and high-toned “whistling” organ lines and bluesy electric piano (“La Nuova Frontiera”). There’s even a jaunty fiddlin’ cowboy variation on “Mah Na’ Mah Na’”. While Questo is certainly a little bit country, it is a little bit rock ‘n’ roll, too. For potent proof, check out the sexy, reverb-drenched “Love In,” ultra funky psycho beat variations on the theme (“Dove VĂ  Il Mondo” and “Mondo Dove Vai?”) and the quirky blues funk of “Moderato Grottesco and Cantabile.” Another side of this wildly inventive yet casually executed score gives Umiliani the opportunity to stretch into easy, breezy Latin jazz on tracks like “Pepito,” “Luna di Miele” and “Holiday Inn.” Overall, Questo doesn’t enjoy the fame of Svezia and fails to deliver a killer vocal track like those found on Angeli, but it’s still an immensely enjoyable “mondo” score. Umiliani went on to score six more Scattini features during the ’70s — mostly exotic erotic dramas. More on those tomorrow.

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